The Free Spot: When “mine” becomes “ours”

freeTwo Christmases ago, my parents gave me a beautiful new desk chair for use when I am away from Uganda, and in San Diego working on my PhD.  (Mom’s always worried about my back pain, and Dad’s very generous.)

As I assembled my new chair, I contemplated what to do with the old one.  I decided that surely someone else in my 100-year-old apartment building was likely to need it, so I used a marker and made a paper sign which I taped to the seat, and then I put the chair downstairs in our humble lobby.  The sign read simply, “FREE. Take me to your desk.”

Within hours, it was gone.

But then something fun happened.  Every day since, in that very spot in the lobby, other items have appeared.  It’s now known as “The Free Spot.”  Signs aren’t even needed anymore.  It’s just known that if something is resting in that place, and you want it, it’s yours.

Just this week alone, there has been a toaster oven, a storage bin, a toaster, and yesterday: three beers.

No matter how tired I am, every time I enter our building and see “The Free Spot” offering a new item, I smile.  I very much like this notion of sharing, of community—of offering.

A few months ago, I ran into a new neighbor in the hall.  He asked, “By chance, did you see my backpack in the lobby?”

“Sorry, no, I didn’t,” I said.

“I didn’t know about ‘The Free Spot,’” he said, “and I rested my backpack there, and now it’s gone.”

I advised him to simply put a note on the front door.  I told him I was sure that whoever took it would understand, and bring it back.  He did so.

Within an hour, the note was gone, and the backpack was returned.

Ugandans taught me this great joy of sharing.  The sense of what is “MINE” is replaced with a notion of what is “OURS.”  Clothes, shoes, cars, phones—virtually everything is shared.  Little discussion is needed beyond “I need to use that,” followed by, “Ok.”  And that’s it.

I fear that in the “west,” we clutch to our belongings—and lose our humanity—as we build a life of possessions instead of relationships, of prosperity instead of purpose.

Of receiving in place of offering.

But it’s so easy to change that.

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